What began over 3000 years ago as a fishing settlement in a bay situated halfway on the east coast of the Red Sea is now Jeddah, a thriving metropolitan area and the second-largest city in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The name Jeddah, meaning 'Grandmother' in Arabic, refers to Eve, who is reputed to have descended from heaven in Jeddah to look for her mate Adam.
Today, a tomb for Eve exists in a burial ground bearing her name, 'Our Mother Eve's Cemetery,' in the Al Baghdadiya district just to the north of the old city. The significance of the geographic location of Jeddah at the time was the existence of rich fishing waters with three major lines of coral reefs off the shore of the Red Sea and the 'Fatima' valley that links it inland to the holy city of Makkah. Throughout its existence, the city experienced shifts in its prominent role because of regional and international power changes and continued to evolve into its current major international seaport status.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 proved to be a huge opportunity for city merchants to trade with international ports in India, Africa, and even Liverpool and Marseilles. Thus, Jeddah's later significance in the 20th century was started by means of this access.
In 1925, the city surrendered to King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, and its modern history continued when, in 1933, the king's finance minister, Al Sulaiman, signed in Jeddah a lucrative oil concession with the Standard Oil Company of California. In 1938, oil began flowing in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and life for all cities in Arabia, including Jeddah, was never again the same.
The wall of old Jeddah came down in 1947, and the city began sprawling to the north. Up until 1947, the population of Jeddah was about 25,000. Within the span of the last 53 years, this population has jumped to a staggering two million inhabitants, requiring vast numbers of architecture and infrastructure projects.
Before the 1960s, Jeddah's architectural designs were influenced by cultural, religious, and environmental factors. The selection of construction materials was controlled by the local availability of raw building supplies. Located at 21°33' north latitude and 39°10' east longitude, Jeddah's annual environmental factors include an average temperature of 28.1°C (82.6°F), a relative humidity of about 50 percent, and a total of about two weeks of rainfall. Cultural and religious factors centered on the issue of privacy. Those influences would be seen in the simplest yet most visible feature of a building, the bay window. Known as 'Rawashin,' bay windows are striking features of the architecture of old Jeddah. Displaying lavish woodworkings and engravings on imported teakwoods, which are highly resistant to insect attacks and relatively high humidity, these Rawashin provided fresh cooling air and preserved the privacy of the occupants. A similar arrangement existed in small balconies with lattice screens ('Seesh') and wood casements ('Mushrabiyah'), fulfilling the combined requirement of natural ventilation and privacy in Jeddah's typical home. The main construction material of old houses was selected out of relatively stiff materials of the available Red Sea reefs. Limestone blocks were cut from those corals and mortared together using date pulp-based compounds. This combination allowed builders to construct one-, two-, three, or even four-story buildings. Elaborate and original handcrafted designs ornamented the exterior limestone stucco, which was either white or colored mainly with pastel shades.
The most famous house in the city featuring such traditional methods and materials is a 50-room stone house called 'Beit Nassif' (Nassif House) on Al Alawi Street. Designed by Egyptian architect Hassan Fachy and completed in 1973, it was the home of the Nassif family for over a century and is currently part of tremendous government efforts to preserve 550 such structures scattered around old Jeddah's quarters.
After the oil boom of the mid-1970s, almost all construction used concrete, steel, and glass as materials, and the traditional Jeddah style of building was abandoned.
The city is also remarkable for its monuments created by prominent and international architects, including the Jeddah Sports Hall (by Frei Otto, 1981): Jeddah Royal Palace and Royal State Palace (by Kenzo Tange, 1980); King Saud Mosque (1987) and Aziziyyah Mosque (1988), both by Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil; and National Commercial Bank (Gordon Bunshaft and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1983). Award-winning buildings in Jeddah include the Haj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport (designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1981). The project is considered to be the world's largest roofed structure, covering 1.5 square kilometers (370 acres) and designed to accommodate the one million pilgrims who make their way to Mecca each year. The Haj Terminal consists of 210 conical Teflon-coated fiberglass roof units divided into ten rectangular sections, each with 21 (3-by-7) of these conical roof units. The project received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. Gordon Bunshaft's National Commercial Bank Headquarters building reflects the importation of International Style modernism and features dramatic 100-foot-wide facade openings and recessed windows. Above the first-floor level, a small triangular core draws up warm air and vents it through the center of the roof.
At about every kilometer, a mosque has been erected for the convenience of praying crowds of tourists and locals alike. The most famous of all these mosques on this Red Sea strip is the Corniche Mosque, which received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1989. Built in 1986, the mosque was designed by the Egyptian architect Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil. Recognized by its simple dome and minaret construction, the mosque's interior provides praying men and women with a serene atmosphere overlooking the blue waters of the Red Sea.
El-Wakil also designed the King Saud Mosque (1987) on El-Medina Road. The largest domed mosque in the city, it features an open central courtyard with properly oriented shading devices that allow warm air from the entire structure to vent naturally through the rooftop. The main feature of the King Saud Mosque is its segmental central dome, which has a height of 40 meters. This type of dome construction was never realized before this project's completion. For weight consideration, the dome was constructed using hollow, yet load-bearing, bricks. Starting with the square, the construction allowed for going through the remaining multisided layers of the dome at a much slower rate than was typically done and, as such, permitted the dome to be significantly higher than typical domes.
If history offers us any lessons, it would teach us that Jeddah will continue to survive and prosper. Given government support, the resourcefulness of its population, and the tourism prospects in Saudi Arabia (religious, internal, and external), the city will face a potentially tremendous growth dilemma. Infrastructure rejuvenation and expansion will be a must for the city to take on anticipated challenges. Architecturally, the city still has the potential to witness the creation of many more salient building achievements in both the private and the public sector.
ZOUHEIR A. HASHEM
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture,Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.